On Jan. 21, Mike Westhoff opened the door to Sean Payton’s office and saw a quiet husk of a football coach, enveloped in sadness and anger. They talked about the only thing anybody in New Orleans could talk about. The city was waking up mad, shaking off a hangover, calling radio stations about the injustice incurred the day before. A Los Angeles Rams defensive back had lambasted a New Orleans Saints receiver, and an official’s missed call had stolen their shot at the Super Bowl.
The latest scar of his scraped-up career remained fresh, and Payton was in the mood to pick at it. He rose from behind his desk, turned toward a board and started drawing X’s and O’s. Westhoff had marveled at Payton’s memory for the year-plus he worked for him as a special teams coach. Payton explained to Westhoff, on a molecular level, what had happened.
“He has an incredible recall of things he’s been involved in,” Westhoff said later. “He saves everything.”
Over 13 years in New Orleans, from the depths of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath to the heights of a Super Bowl parade, Payton has experienced every exhilaration and every devastation of an NFL coach’s existence, all the allure and all the torture. He has been hailed as an offensive mastermind, suspended for a season for his alleged role in a bounty system, embraced as an honorary New Orleanian and confronted by competitive misery.
Payton started this season as he began the last one — facing the previous winter’s heartbreak. In January, the Saints were on the cusp of the Super Bowl a year after they landed on the wrong side of the Minneapolis Miracle, an implausible, last-snap-of-a-playoff-game touchdown. The missed call at the end of the NFC championship game created personal sorrow for Payton’s team and seismic consequences for the league, robbing Payton and quarterback Drew Brees of their second Super Bowl appearance and ushering in the ability for coaches to challenge pass interference calls with replay reviews.
The play stands as the backdrop for the Saints’ season, never more so than Sunday, when they visit Los Angeles for a rematch with the Rams. The Saints’ breathtaking Monday night victory over Houston, sealed on a last-second, 58-yard field goal in the same howling Superdome where the fateful flag stayed pocketed in January, provided a psychic lift. But it will be hard to shake that no-call.
Payton was still agonized when Westhoff came to see him the day after. Payton explained how he knew Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips would call an all-out blitz while still double-teaming No. 1 wideout Michael Thomas. That would leave star running back Alvin Kamara, lined up in the slot, in single coverage on the left side.
Kamara was the anticipated target, but Payton had also sneaked pint-size wide receiver Tommylee Lewis into the game and lined him up in the backfield, where he hid behind the offensive line. Payton instructed Brees to call for the snap quickly so the Rams wouldn’t decipher the formation.
Cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, lined up across from Kamara, spotted Lewis late and realized the Rams would have nobody covering him. As Lewis streamed down the right sideline, Brees noticed the coverage bust and floated Lewis a pass. Robey-Coleman, sprinting from the other side of the field, leveled Lewis as a last resort.
Long nights staring at game film had prepared Payton to make that play-call. Years of study had enabled him to acquire those players to create those matchups. The long hours and obsession had paid off — until, poof, it all vanished. With one missed call by an official, Payton had to start all over.
Bill Parcells, the legendary coach and a friend and mentor of Payton’s, told Payton and all of his coaching proteges: Being a head coach means five things will happen every day that you wish wouldn’t happen, and if you can’t deal with that, then find another profession. The slog is worthwhile to Payton. He prepares inexperienced players for the playoffs by telling them to think of the most intoxicating feeling of their lives outside of family and multiply it by 1,000.
“It’s like a drug,” Payton said days before the NFC title game.
‘He got over it as best as he could’
For three days afterward, Payton barricaded himself in his home with Jeni’s ice cream and Netflix. He is a football coach, so Payton is programmed to move on to the next play, the next game, the next season. That doesn’t mean he forgets.
“He hasn’t,” said New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse, a friend of Payton’s. “Knowing Sean, he hasn’t. Especially last year. It took him a lot, a lot of weeks to get over that. I know that personally. He was really, really [troubled] about what went down and how it went down. He got over it as best as he could. ... It’s sort of like a shadow that keeps following you, and that’s not how Sean operates. He doesn’t like shadows following him.”
Parcells speaks with Payton often. He waited about a week after the NFC title game to talk with him, and by then Parcells sensed Payton had gotten back to business.
“I don’t know that you ever completely get over it,” Payton said in January. “But I think you do get past it.”
Even accepting that, could the average fan relate to the kind of losses Payton suffered over the past two seasons?
“It’d be impossible,” Parcells said. “It’d be impossible for people to understand.”
In the spring, Payton poured his anger into effecting change. Payton is one of two coaches, along with Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, on the NFL’s competition committee, a sign of his status among peers. Payton is the second-longest-tenured NFL head coach, behind New England’s Bill Belichick. Despite initial resistance and a struggle to arrive at a consensus, Payton pushed at the NFL’s meeting in March for a rule that would make pass interference reviewable by instant replay. Eventually — and largely because of his influence — 31 of 32 teams voted for it.
“Even though that specific play benefited our team, we all want to make sure the game is void of any of those egregious and clear and obvious things that end up getting officiated in a different direction,” Rams Coach Sean McVay said. “It’s a result of the respect people have for him for why he was able to be the lead dog in getting that through.”
Around the league, executives view the Payton-Brees relationship as a model to emulate. McVay said he watches film of Payton’s offense every week, anticipating he will find a play to steal. Sometimes in the New Orleans quarterback room, Payton will show a new play and explain which receiver will be the primary target, and Brees and backup Taysom Hill respond with quizzical looks. “It’s going to be open,” Payton says, and no further inquiry is required.
“He doesn’t need to give us any reason,” Hill said. “He just sees it. He knows.”
Payton fosters competition and confidence at every level. Inside the Saints’ locker room during the week before the NFC championship game, players battled on the mini basketball hoop, the ping-pong tables and a four-monitor screen for video games.
“He’s just got a swag about him,” Kamara said. “He’s got a little walk like, you know, when he’s feeling himself. . He can kind of relate to us. He’s a cool dude.”
Payton becomes possessed on Sundays. “He’s good to be around except for 60 minutes on game day,” Westhoff said. “And then he’s terrible.”
Two years ago, Payton wrapped his hand around his throat in the direction of Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman, suggesting the Falcons — who were coming off blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl — would choke. Last season, he jawed with Rams cornerback Marcus Peters in a regular season meeting, then took a dig at him in his postgame news conference. Several Saints players said they frequently hear Payton talking trash to opponents.
“He’s for his guys, which I like,” fullback Zach Line said. “I like that he does that stuff.”
In brutal losses, Payton’s intensity increases the dismay felt afterward. The officiating malpractice hovered in the city’s psyche, but in any tight NFL game, coaches can find countless forgotten moments to haunt them. The Saints probably would have sealed the win if the penalty had been called, but they also could have run out the clock if not for an incompletion, and they possessed the ball first in overtime before Brees threw an interception.
Here’s one more: Early in the second quarter, the Saints led 13-0 and threatened to blow out the Rams, who faced fourth and five in their own territory.
Westhoff anticipated the Rams would fake a punt. He was so certain that, every practice that week, he had put backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater at punter to prepare for the pass Westhoff believed the Rams would call. Westhoff called a coverage that kept his cornerbacks close to the line to prevent the short, outside throw the Saints expected.
“And the guy turned his back,” Westhoff said.
Cornerback Justin Hardee gave ground and spun around as Johnny Hekker tossed to Sam Shields for a first down. Westhoff blamed himself for not flipping cornerbacks — Westhoff viewed Hardee as one of his best special teamers, but the cornerback on the other side had better awareness than Hardee, Westhoff said, and would not have blown the assignment. To this day, Westhoff questions himself.
“We would have won the game,” he said.
‘There’s nothing on his mind but to win’
Payton does not like gumbo. A Midwesterner who grew up in Illinois and worked in Dallas before coming to New Orleans, he would rather have a steak. Payton and New Orleans are not an obvious match, but they have “fit like a glove,” Lagasse said.
Payton’s intimate connection with the city dates from his start. The Saints played the 2005 season away from home after Katrina turned the Superdome into a shelter. When Payton took over before 2006, the city was still recovering. Few hotels operated. The airport was desolate. Every member of the coaching staff, Payton included, had gone to New Orleans because they got a promotion.
“We weren’t really winning any jump balls when it came to signing players,” Payton said.
The Saints have always been a beloved fixation in New Orleans, but Payton made them an emblem of civic pride as well. Before Payton arrived, the Saints had one playoff victory in 39 years of existence. Since he took over, the Saints have won eight postseason games, including their only Super Bowl.
He has grown into part of the city’s fabric. Every year the night before the draft, he and his staff gather at the kitchen table at Emeril’s for barbecue shrimp and andouille-crusted redfish. Late last season, Payton started a superstition by eating veal-and-ricotta meatballs on Friday nights at Clancy’s, a Creole bistro a few blocks from his house in Uptown.
“He’s treated more like the local that he is than a celebrity,” said Clancy’s owner, Brad Hollingsworth. “I think people respect his privacy. There’s nobody sending him bottles of wine or asking him for autographs. He always manages to sit with his back to the dining room, so they don’t see his face. Maybe that’s it.”
At times, such as before he signed a five-year contract extension in 2016, people have wondered how long Payton will stay. Rumors swirled in NFL circles this offseason that the Cowboys will pursue Payton if they do not retain Jason Garrett, who is in the final year of his deal.
“People want to talk s--- all the time,” Lagasse said. “I don’t know if there’s any merit. There was a lot of conversation at one point when he was going through some personal stuff that he was going to go back to Dallas. I think that passed. … I mean, I think he’s really happy. But I also think it’s going to depend on how this season goes. He’s kind of been clipped. He’s kind of been wounded a little bit. But I know how determined he is. There’s nothing on his mind but to win.”
That is all Payton can do now. He only has so much time left with Brees, regardless of his own future, and the Saints for years have traded draft picks and pushed salary cap hits into the future to build teams equipped for immediate success. Payton is too focused on climbing the mountain again to worry about last year. But there is no question he remembers.
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